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Authors: Ismail Kadare

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BOOK: Chronicle in Stone
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Suddenly we saw the slaughterers, with their white coats and chapped, sinewy hands. They were standing near the fountain at the centre of the square, and they remained motionless even when the peasants began pushing the animals towards them from the stalls. There was a muffled rumble as thousands of hooves scuffed the ground. It was a low, rhythmic noise and it went on for a long time. When the first animals drew near the fountain where the slaughterers were waiting, we suddenly saw the gleam of the knives. Then it began.

I felt a pain in my right hand. Ilir’s nails were sinking into my flesh. I felt sick.

“Let’s go.”

Neither of us actually spoke those words, but we sought the stairs blindly, with our hands over our eyes.

At last we found them, ran down as fast as we could, and were off. The farther we got from the slaughterhouse, the livelier the streets were. People were going home from the market, laden with produce. Others were just on their way there. Did they have any idea what was going on in the slaughterhouse?

“Where have you been?” a voice suddenly thundered, seeming to roll from the sky. We looked up. It was Mane Voco, Ilir’s father, standing in front of us. He was holding a loaf of bread and a bunch of fresh onions.

“Where have you been?” he asked again. “Why are you so pale?”

“We were up there . . . at the slaughterhouse.”

“The slaughterhouse?” The onions writhed in his hand like snakes. “What were you doing at the slaughterhouse?”

“Nothing, Papa, just watching.”

“Watching what?”

The onions stopped moving; their stalks hung limply. “I don’t want you going up there again,” Mane Voco said in a milder tone. His fingers searched for something in his vest pocket. Finally he came up with half a lek. “Here,” he said, “go to the movies, both of you.”

He left. Gradually we recovered from the shock. The sights of the market comforted us as we walked through it. On counters, in baskets, sacks and unfolded kerchiefs lay a world of green that couldn’t be found in our part of the city: cabbage, onions, lettuce, milk, fresh eggs, cheese, parsley. And in the midst of it all, the clinking of coins. Questions and answers. “How much?” “How much!” Murmurings. Curses. “May you drop dead before you eat them!” “This’ll pay for your doctor.” So much poison flowed over the lettuces and cabbages! Where worms crawled, there crept death . . . “And how much is that?”

We walked on. At the far end of the market an Italian soldier sat playing a harmonica and making eyes at the girls. We were back at the cinema. There was no film that day.

We went home. On my way upstairs, I heard my youngest aunt laughing. She was sitting on a chair, jiggling one leg and laughing loudly. Xhexho looked over to Grandmother two or three times, but she only pursed her lips as if to say, “What can you do, Xhexho? That’s how girls act these days.”

My father came in. “Did you hear?” my aunt said to him at once. “They took a shot at the King of Italy in Tirana.”

“I heard at the coffee house,” my father said. “The assassin had hidden his pistol in a bouquet of roses.”

“Really?”

“They’re going to hang him tomorrow. He’s only seventeen.”

“Oh, the poor boy,” Grandmother sighed.

“The end of the world.”

“Too bad he didn’t get him,” my aunt shouted out. “The roses got in his way.”

“Where do you hear such things?” my mother asked in a tone of reproach.

“Here and there,” was all my aunt would say.

Xhexho adjusted the kerchief on her head, said goodbye to Grandmother and Kako Pino, and left. Kako Pino left soon after. My aunt stayed on for a while.

I went up the two flights. There was still some activity in the streets. The last people were going home from the market. Maksut, Nazo’s boy, was carrying a cabbage that looked like a severed head. He seemed to be smiling broadly.

The peasants had started packing up. Soon their black cloaks would darken the streets — Varosh, Palorto, Hazmurat, Çetemel, Zall — and the highway and bridge too, as they made their way back to the villages that we never saw. The city, like a tethered horse, would swallow up the greenery they had brought. But all that soft green, that meadow dew and tinkle of cowbells, was not enough to soften the city’s harshness. They were leaving now, their black cloaks dancing in the twilight. The cobblestones flashed their last sparks of anger under the iron horseshoes. It was getting late. The peasants had to hurry home to their villages. They never even turned to look back at the city, alone now with its stones. A muffled ringing rolled down the hill from the citadel. Every evening the guards checked the window bars, striking them rhythmically with iron rods.

I saw the last of the peasants crossing the bridge over the river and I thought about the strange division of people into peasants and city-dwellers. What were the villages like? Where were they and why didn’t we ever see them? To tell the truth I didn’t really believe the villages existed. It seemed to me that the peasants were only pretending to go to their villages, while actually they weren’t going anywhere, just crouching behind the scattered bush-covered hillocks around the city, waiting out the long week for another market day, when once again they would fill the streets with greens, eggs and the tinkling of bells.

I wondered how it was that it had occurred to people to pile up so many stones and so much wood to make all those walls and roofs and then call that great heap of streets, roofs, chimneys and yards a city. But even less comprehensible were the words “occupied city”, which came up more and more in the grown-ups’ conversations. Our city was occupied. Which meant that there were foreign soldiers in it. That much I knew, but there was something else that bothered me. I couldn’t see how a city could be unoccupied. And anyway, even if our city wasn’t occupied, wouldn’t there be these same streets, the same fountains, roofs and people? Wouldn’t I still have the same mother and father and wouldn’t Xhexho, Kako Pino, Aunt Xhemo and all the same people still come to visit?

“You can’t understand what a free city means, because you’re growing up in slavery,” Javer told me one day when I asked him about it. “It’s hard to explain it to you, believe me, but in a free city, everything will be so different, so beautiful, that at first we’ll all be dazzled.”

“Will we get a lot to eat?”

“Of course we’ll eat. But there’ll be lots of other things besides eating. So many things that I don’t even know them all myself.”

From time to time the sun shone through the clouds. The rain fell in sparse drops that seemed to smile secretly. The wooden door opened and Kako Pino went out into the street. Skinny, dressed all in black, holding the red bag with her instruments under her arm, she set out nimbly down the street. The rain fell lightly, joyfully. There was a wedding somewhere, and Kako Pino was going. Her wizened hands, drawing various objects out of her bag — tweezers, hairpins, thread, boxes — decorated the brides’ faces with star-like dots, cypress branches and signs of the zodiac, all floating in the white mystery of powder.

I exhaled lightly on the windowpane, fogging up the image of Kako Pino. All I could see was a black shape waddling at the far end of the street. Some day she would go out like that to make up my bride. Could you paint a rainbow on her face, Kako Pino? I had been wondering about that for a long time.

But now she had turned into another street, where she looked even smaller among the intolerably tall houses. Behind the heavy doors, with their solid iron fittings, were the beautiful young brides.

FRAGMENT OF A CHRONICLE

we met again, this time in Nuremberg. The happy news had just been announced. Ettore Muti, secretary of the Fascist Party and a great friend of Albania, would soon be visiting our region. Our city is preparing a fitting reception. Trial. Executive orders. Property. The body of our fellow citizen L. Xuano was fished out of the river. Killed when he was supposed to appear as a witness in the Angonis’ suit against the Karllashi family. The case, which has been going on for sixty years now, has done great harm to our city. It has been discovered that Ahmet Zogu, the sultan of Albania, the Ogre, bought a palace in Vienna for two million leks as a gift for his mistress, Mizzi. The heaviest person in the city right now is Aqif Kashahu, who weighs 159 kilos. The troublesome elements have been expelled from the secondary school. All citizens possessing arms without permits are to report to the command post. The seventeenth of this month is the deadline. Bruno Arcivocale commanding. Our fellow citizen Bido Sherifi returned yesterday from Tirana, where he spent ten days. Births. Marriages. Deaths. To A. Dhrami and to Z. Bashari was born a boy, to M. Xhiku a girl. N. Fico married E. Karafili,

THREE

A number of things happened in the city that seemed unrelated at first. A veiled woman was seen fiddling with something on the ground at the last crossroads on the street leading to the citadel. Then she sprinkled the place with water and left quickly, getting away from the people who tried to follow her. An unknown old woman was seen under a window of Nazo’s house, where her young daughter-in-law was cutting her nails. The old woman gathered up the nail clippings in the street and went off cackling to herself. Bido Sherifi woke up suddenly in the middle of the night, crowed two or three times like a rooster, and went back to sleep. The next morning he claimed he remembered nothing. Two days later Kako Pino found a pile of damp ashes in her yard. But everything became clear after what happened to Mane Voco’s wife. Then no one could say that these events were unrelated, as had been thought at first. One day, towards noon, a dark-skinned woman knocked at Mane Voco’s door and asked for a glass of water. The lady of the house brought it for her, but the stranger drank only half of it. As Mane Voco’s wife held out her hand to take back the glass, the unknown woman suddenly said, “Why do you give me water in a dirty glass?”, and threw what was left of it in her face. Mane Voco’s poor wife turned pale with fear. Then the visitor vanished in the twinkling of an eye. Mane Voco’s wife quickly put a cauldron on the fire, bathed from head to foot, and burned the clothes she had been wearing.

Now it was obvious: witchcraft was rampant throughout town. Invisible hands scattered evil objects everywhere: under doorsteps, behind walls, under eaves, wrapped in old papers or dirty rags that made you shudder. People said that a spell had been cast on the house of the Cutes, where the brothers hated each other and the quarrelling was endless. The same happened to the house of Dino Çiço, the city’s lone inventor, whose calculations were now thrown off by the magic. Furthermore, the behaviour of certain young girls in recent days could be explained only as a consequence of the practice of witchcraft.

In our house we were waiting for Xhexho. And come she did, breathing heavily as always, her nasal voice booming as she walked through the gate. “Have you heard, poor things?” she called from the steps. “Babaramo’s daughter-in-law’s milk has run dry.”

“God help us,” my mother said, going green in the face.

“You should see what happened there. They looked all over for the magic ball, on the ceiling, under the floorboards. They turned over the mattresses, emptied all the chests. They turned the whole house upside down until they finally found it.”

“They found it?”

“They did. Right in the baby’s cradle: nails and hair of the dead. You should have seen them! Wailing and crying. They kept it up until the oldest son came home and went to tell the police.”

“It’s the work of witches,” my mother said. “Why can’t they find them?”

“Has anything happened at your place?” asked Xhexho.

“No,” said Grandmother. “Not so far.”

“That’s good.”

“Witches,” my mother kept repeating.

“What about Nazo’s boy?” Xhexho asked. “Have they managed to get rid of his curse?”

“Not yet,” said Grandmother. “They called the hodja twice but nothing yet. They’ve turned the house upside down looking for the magic, but they can’t find it.”

“Too bad,” said Xhexho. “Such a good-looking boy!”

I had heard about this business with Maksut, Nazo’s son. He had been married just a short time when the rumour started that a spell had done something to him. Ilir had heard about it at home and told us. We were very curious to find out what was going on in that house which had been struck by a spell. Not until much later did I understand that it had affected Maksut’s performance of his conjugal duties. We would sit by their door for hours, but it seemed that nothing unusual ever happened. Behind the windows everything was as quiet as it had always been. Nazo and her daughter-in-law still hung the clothes out to dry in the yard and the grey tomcat invariably lay on the roof warming itself in the sun.

“What kind of spell is this?” we asked each other. “No screaming. No hair-pulling.”

One day I asked Grandmother, “What is this spell on Nazo’s boy?”

“Listen,” Grandmother said, “these are shameful things you shouldn’t talk about at your age. Got that?”

I told my friends and they got even more curious. In the evening, when the hodja was praying in the mosque and the storks’ nests atop the chimneys and minarets looked like black turbans, we went to wait outside Nazo’s house to see the young bride. She came out and sat with her mother-in-law on a stone bench near the door. Her fingers toyed with her long braids and a strange, fascinating light flashed in her eyes now and then. Our neighbourhood had never seen such a splendid bride. Among ourselves we called her “the beautiful bride”, and we liked it when she looked at us as we ran past Nazo’s front door chasing fireflies in the twilight. She would sit there watching us with her big grey eyes, but her mind seemed elsewhere. Then Maksut would come home from the market or the coffee house carrying a big loaf of bread under his arm. The bride and her mother-in-law would get up silently from the stone bench and he would follow them inside, closing the heavy door, which creaked plaintively, behind him.

Behind that stone threshold, the spell must have been working. We felt sorry for the beautiful bride who disappeared every night behind that grim door. The street seemed empty, and we didn’t feel like playing any more. Through the window we watched Nazo light the kerosene lamp, whose dim yellow light would have depressed anyone.

“Yes, Selfixhe,” said Xhexho, “it’s all our own fault. People have just gone too far. They say that in a few days all the men and women of the city are going to parade through the streets with flags and music, shouting ‘Long live shit!’ Has anyone ever seen such an abomination?”

Mother pinched her cheeks, which was a way of saying how upset she was.

“It’s the end of the world!”

“How disgraceful! How disgraceful!” Grand mother said.

“Who knows what’s next?” said Xhexho. “But He on high,” she went on, pointing up as she always did, “He may take His time, but He never forgets. Yesterday He made Çeço Kaili’s daughter grow a beard, tomorrow He will make all our bodies sprout thorns.”

“God save us!” my mother cried.

Before she left, Xhexho gave us some advice. Whenever she gave advice, her voice got even more nasal. “When you cut your nails, don’t leave the clippings around. Burn them, so nobody can find them.”

“Why?”

“Because they use nail clippings for witchcraft, boy. And you, my girl, I beg you, when you comb your hair, be careful not to leave any tufts around, because the devil lies in wait for just such things.”

“God save us!” my mother said once again.

“And bury the ashes from the fireplace too!”

Xhexho left as she had come, wrapped in black, and still wheezing. She left fear and unease in her wake, as she always did. That’s how I remember her, always agitated and consumed with worry, never talking about anything pleasant, only about dark things, seemingly invigorated by them. Ilir suspected her of practising magic and casting spells herself.

Magic was now the constant topic of conversation in every home. In the beginning, after the first events, there was a kind of perplexity. Then, as is usual in such cases, once the uncertainty had passed, people started looking for the root of the evil, for the cause. The “old crones” were consulted. These were aged women who could never be surprised or frightened by anything any more. They had long since stopped going out of their houses, for they found the world boring. To them even major events like epidemics, floods and wars were only repetitions of what they had seen before. They had already been old ladies in the thirties, under the monarchy, and even before, under the republic in the mid-twenties. In fact, they were old during the First World War and even before, at the turn of the century. Granny Hadje had not been out of her house in twenty-two years. One old woman of the Zeka family had been inside for twenty-three years. Granny Neslihan had last gone out thirteen years before, to bury her last grandson. Granny Shano spent thirty-one years inside until one day she went out into the street a few yards in front of her house to assault an Italian officer who was making eyes at her great-granddaughter. These crones were very robust, all nerve and bone, even though they ate very little and smoked and drank coffee all day long. When Granny Shano grabbed the Italian officer by the ear, he let out a great yelp, drew his pistol, and rapped the old woman’s hand with the butt. Not only did she refuse to let go, she punched him with her bony hands. The crones had very little flesh on their bones, and few vulnerable spots. Their bodies were like corpses ready for embalming, from which all innards likely to rot had already been removed. Superfluous emotions like curiosity, fear and lust for gossip or excitement had been shed along with the useless flesh and excess fat. Javer once said that Granny Shano could as easily have grabbed the ear of Benito Mussolini himself as the Italian officer’s.

The old crones gave very sober advice about the practice of witchcraft. They suggested that outbreaks of magic usually occurred on the eve of great events, when people’s spirits flutter like leaves before a storm.

Many questions remained, including the most important: who were the practitioners of witchcraft? But people didn’t simply ask questions, they also took steps. Aqif Kashahu’s boys stood guard day and night, in shifts, hiding in a dormer window. Kako Pino, who in her capacity as make-up woman for the city’s brides was one of the most vulnerable targets of magic, bought a huge wolf-like dog and let it run loose in her yard.

Mane Voco brought his ancient rifle, a relic from the days of Turkish rule, up from the cellar and he kept it to hand, hanging on a nail behind the door. The mayor’s office posted an extra guard in the city cemetery.

People took certain other precautionary measures too. Housewives kept the ash from the fireplace in the cupboard, under lock and key, as if it was flour. Men leaving the barbershop carried their clipped hair and shavings wrapped up in a rag or a piece of newspaper. These precautions seemed to stem the flow of sorcery. The ordinary concerns of daily life, which had disappeared from conversation because of the magic, began to crop up again. Some sense of security and tranquillity returned. But it didn’t last. Just when it seemed that the evil spells had gone for good, they attacked again with unexpected fury. Their return was signalled by the explosion of a sealed barrel of cheese, which made a terrific noise when it blew up in the middle of the night at the house of Avdo Babaramo, the former gunner. In response to this new outbreak of witchcraft, the mayor’s office posted notices around the city urging people to help apprehend those responsible. But this didn’t work. Murky misdeeds went on being done. One night someone smiled at Aqif Kashahu’s wife from a dormer window, making a come-hither gesture. After the explosion of the cheese barrel, Avdo Babaramo’s elder son, so it was said, became estranged from his wife. But it was the third incident, directed against Kako Pino, that caused the greatest uproar. The evil omen itself was nothing very unusual — on the contrary, ashes again, but this time sprinkled with vinegar. The trouble was that the clamour we kids made when we saw how shaken Kako Pino was on discovering the magic attracted the attention of an Italian patrol that happened to be passing by at the time. The patrol must have reported the unusual agitation to the garrison, because a quarter of an hour later four Italian sappers trooped into Kako Pino’s yard with mine detectors. They looked at our frightened eyes, saw Kako Pino scratching her own face from fear, and, without asking for any explanation, began searching the spot all of us were staring at.

“Hell,” one of them kept saying over and over, “the detector says there’s nothing here.”

A few minutes later they stalked off angrily, and as they moved down the street one of them shouted back at Kako Pino, “
Che puttana!

Every evening now, as night drew near, our heads were filled with thoughts of magic. This was understandable, for when the night enveloped everything, from the citadel and its prison at the top of the hill right down to the stony river bed at the bottom, somewhere in the deserted alleyways unseen hands were collecting hair and nail clippings, chimney soot and other dark matter, wrapping them in scraps of cloth, and whispering spells to make your blood run cold.

The proud and sullen city, having defied rain, hail, thunder and rainbows, now gnawed at itself. The stretching of the eaves, the warped twisting of the streets, the strange position of the chimneys all testified to its torment.

“The city is sick.” It was the second time I had heard those words. I couldn’t understand how a city could be ill. In Mane Voco’s yard, Ilir and I listened to Javer and Isa talking about witchcraft. As usual when they talked among themselves, they used difficult and unknown words, the sound of which seemed ill suited to a discussion of matters that were already mysterious enough. Several times we heard them use the words “mysticism” and “collective psychosis”. Then Isa asked Javer, “Have you read Jung?”

“No,” said Javer. “And I have no intention of doing so either.”

“I came across one of his books by accident. He discusses this very question.”

“What do I care about Jung?” said Javer. “All this is clear enough. This psychosis serves the interests of the reactionaries by diverting public attention from the real problems. Here, look at the newspaper: ‘Magic is in some sense part of a nation’s traditional folklore.’”

“A fascist theory,” Isa said.

Javer tossed the paper aside.

“Those barbarians with feathers in their hats are happy to resurrect any medieval custom, as long as Mussolini can get something out of it.”

Javer had been expelled from the secondary school two weeks before for having taken part in acts of violence against an Italian teacher. He was now working in Mak Karllashi’s tannery.

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